Category Archives: Science fiction

Under the Skin – Michel Faber

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For this book, I had one of those movie-poster covers. You know the ones. When a book has a famous adaptation, the film poster is repackaged as the book cover, aiming to entice fans of the film (presumably?) into picking up the book – for rather snobby reasons, carrying around one of these made me worry I looked a bit illiterate, as if I had no other motive to pick up a book beyond the fact I saw and liked a film. All right, I confess: that’s true, in this case. I doubt I would have heard of this book were it not for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 adaptation, showered in critical acclaim and starring Scarlett Johannson. Ssh. Keep that on the downlow.

Still, in this case, I think a movie-cover-copy was a particularly weird move, as – from what I know about the film – the book is NOTHING like it. Throughout the book I was constantly thinking, ‘how the hell did they put this to screen?’ and, it turns out – after a bit of research – they didn’t. Instead, from the sounds of it, they created an original film that simply shares the name of this novel. This is quite a spoiler-y review, though I wouldn’t worry if you’re interested in checking out the film, as I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers, too – trust me, you won’t get much from this.

I read this on holiday in Rome. It’s not an ideal holiday read. It’s the kind of book you could blast through on a train or during a long car journey – for some reason I’d expect it to be accompanied by a gloomy sky, maybe rain, probably autumnal or winter showers, which might be because it’s set in Scotland – but a city-break read it is not. It’s short, mind, and very readable, following a protagonist named Isserley, a female alien who spends her time picking up lone, male (and generally hunky) hitchhikers in Scotland. After kidnapping them, she takes them back to a farm she and some others from her species live on, where they are processed while alive (taking about a month) and sent back to Isserley’s home planet as meat. In this context the earthlings (human beings to you and me) are called ‘vodsels’. Confusingly, Isserley and her species (weird, giant, feline things) refer to themselves as human beings; a deliberate move by the author, I suppose, as if we are reading the novel in a translation from its original alien language, though it’s never really explained. Isserley looks quite like a ‘vodsel’ because she has been surgically altered, much to her distaste, by the alien corporation who farms and sells the meat (her employer). Much of the plot focuses on Isserley’s numerous attempts to pick up the men: most are successful, but there are some failures that are traumatic at best, fatal at worst.

Alongside that, we have a plot on the farm where the owner of the corporation’s son, Amlis Vess, briefly visits and pities the ‘vodsels’ processed alive, going so far as to publicly protest by setting them free (vegetarianism in alien form). Vess is as exasperated by the process as Isserley is, though more in that he fears the social impact and cruelty involved in the process, whilst Isserley herself is traumatised by her own ‘transformation’ process and by some of her failed attempts (the vodsels can be cruel). Amlis leaves quite quickly, but Isserley falls in love with him before he goes, not that I’m sure why – they don’t spend a lot of time together. Isserley constantly fears the vodsels discovering the ‘human beings’ and the farm, and the book ends with this reality very much in sight, and an ambiguous decision from Isserley.

Does all this sound a bit nuts? Well, yeah. It is. It’s been described as an ambitious debut by Michel Faber, and throughout, as I said, I was wondering how the hell director Jonathan Glazer had been motivated to put it to film, particularly given the downright bizarre appearance of the ‘human beings’ and the grotesque and disturbing process the vodsels go through to be prepared for meat. It’s truly horrifying, in fact; our first encounter with that as readers is when four of them escape for captivity (Amlis Vess’s doing) and Isserley and her colleague have to deal with what’s on the loose. The extent to which the vodsels are surgically and chemically altered is pretty nausea-inducing and, I’ll admit, I was considerably worried about seeing that on screen. But more on the film later.

Overall, Under the Skin had a lot of potential, but it felt like half a book. It wasn’t until 100 pages or so when you felt like you had a good idea what was going on – to prolong the mystery for that long was frustrating. It probably didn’t help that at time of reading I had just finished Oryx and Crake, where Atwood seemed to balance information and mystery perfectly. Once I finally did have a good sense of what was going on in Under the Skin, the book was almost over, which was a shame. I would have liked to have seen more of it. Where did Isserley and her colleagues come from, exactly? What was going to happen with Amlis Vess? Will Isserley fulfil her order to bring a female vodsel back to the planet (presumably so her eggs could be harvested and they could breed the meat on their own planet)? What about Isserley’s backstory? How had she ended up doing a job that required so much sacrifice on her part – which she repeatedly mourned as her only choice? There were hints, too, at a dystopian, government-controlled world back on her home planet – what was going on there?

Some books flourish without sufficient backstory, but I would have liked to have seen more from this – a sequel, a prequel, something. Maybe such a book exists and I’m moaning about nothing, but I haven’t heard of it, yet. It didn’t help that Isserley herself wasn’t convincing – she was an interesting character up to a point, but her rushed and confusing relationship with Amlis Vess didn’t suit her or the story; she went from hating him, to so in love with him she was prepared to kill herself in the space of about half a night. It didn’t feel authentic.

Never mind – time to check out that much-adored film. Scarlett, show me what you’ve got.

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The film Under the Skin – I really do hesitate to call it an adaptation – feels more like an art project than a clear narrative. If I had thought the book was nuts, I hadn’t seen anything before I’d seen the movie. Johansson plays Isserley, although she isn’t given a name in the film (and is credited ‘the Female’). Similarly to the book, Johansson drives around Scotland in a van talking to and picking up men – real, secretly filmed encounters, I learned in advance – but instead of paralysing them in her car, she seduces them into walking into some sort of underwater chasm where they are suspended until they are gruesomely processed (not quite as gruesomely as in the book, but nauseating in its own way). The change from enticement-and-drugging in the book to full-blown, naked seduction in the movie felt a bit cliche, but those hyper-surreal scenes must have been incredible to edit.

Had I not read the book, the film might have frustrated me. Where is ‘the Female’ from? What is she doing with the men she captures? Does she regret her work, even resent it? But the film doesn’t dwell on this sort of detail and that probably makes it more powerful as a result. Like I said, it’s something of an art project, and can be merited for that. It’s beautifully edited and gives the bleak Scottish highlands a dark beauty (maybe not so much the Scottish cities and nightclubs). I’m not sure I’d recommend it, mind. It’s for a particular kind of viewing, and can be (whisper it) a tad boring.

So, the book? Only three stars on Goodreads from me, I’m afraid. Not a bad read, but with the incredible sci-fi selection out there, I’m just not sure it holds a candle.

[Coming next: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]

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Hyperion – Dan Simmons

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I’d never heard of Hyperion until I hit the pub with a colleague and he told me it was one of his favourite books. True, I’ve only dipped my toe into the world of sci-fi literature, despite having a draw towards it in film and other mediums (and indeed, flirting with it in my own written fiction), so this wasn’t altogether surprising, but I was mildly intrigued based on what he said. I mentioned it to my dad – much more of a sci-fi geek – and he hadn’t heard of it either, but admitted it looked good. I might not have got round to reading it for a long time had the same work friend, Alex, not spontaneously bought me a copy in Waterstones one evening (so keen was he for me to read it). Another old uni chum who caught me on Goodreads promised me it would be brilliant.

Paradoxically, this made me sceptical. How often do books like this live up to their hype? Welp – no pun intended. Still, with a fresh copy I thought I’d check it out sooner rather than later – and to my surprise, it only took me a few days to storm through the c. 500-page novel. No spoilers ahead (yay!)

I’ve mentioned in the past that others tend to find fiction disturbing when I don’t (see: my sister’s reaction to A Clockwork Orange), but ‘disturbing’ is just not a term I tend to associate with literature. To me books are often moving, shocking, heartwarming, and exciting, yes, but never really disturbing – but sci-fi has a way of piercing me right to the bone in a way that no other genre does. I stand corrected – it’s probably the only genre that HAS always disturbed me a little, and in that sense every sci-fi book I’ve read has stayed with me – right from my early forays into Terry Pratchett as a child, to reading Jeff Noon’s Vurt as a teenager, to Under the Skin just a few months ago. Hyperion – the first proper, headfuck of a sci-fi book I’ve read in years – was no exception. Intensely captivating and disturbing in equal measure, it was easy to devour in less than a week, and I have no doubt it’s another that will stay with me for a long, long time.

The whole thing is heavy with literary references. The title takes its name from an abandoned poem by Keats (and Keats is mentioned frequently throughout the novel) and the plot is structured in the same vein as The Canterbury Tales – a phenomenally exciting starting point for a sci-fi epic. To sum up the plot without spoilers: it’s the eve of catastrophic war for the ‘Human Hegemony’, a colony occupying multiple planets and worlds long after the original human race has fled ‘Old Earth’ and mostly died out, and seven individuals are summoned for a pilgrimage to holy ground on the planet Hyperion. After journeying there, specifically to the ‘Time Tombs’, they will potentially meet the Shrike, a mysterious monster (‘part god, part killing machine’) who’s wreaking havoc on Hyperion and doesn’t abide by the same laws of space and time. None of them are outward supporters to the cult known as the Temple of the Shrike, and as a result they are all initially perplexed as to why they’re the ones who were summoned by them to undergo the journey. Still, does the Shrike have the power to save them from the war? Or will it destroy them? This isn’t known, and their separate stories reveal separate motivations for wanting to confront it.

Therein lies the Canterbury Tales structure – each of the pilgrims tells their own tale, in this case their previous encounters with Hyperion, while they pass across the planet on their way to the Time Tombs. In line with Chaucer they are referred to by occupation – the poet’s tale, the scholar’s tale, the soldier’s tale, etc – and each story occupies a significant chunk of the novel. There’s a hint at the start that one of them is an enemy spy, though no one is sure who, and indeed, once they begin telling their tales, it becomes undetectable for the reader. Our primary vessel for the plot (the ‘ear’ for the reader, so to speak) is the Consul, one of the pilgrims who is last to tell his story. I think his name’s unknown – it might have been mentioned but it’s funny how I don’t recall it.

As you’d expect from a sci-fi twist on an iconic Middle English set of stories, in this case spanning multiple worlds and technologies, it’s phenomenally imaginative. Like a lot of sci-fi I’ve read, it suffers a little from not quite managing the balance of over-explaining unfamiliar concepts to the audience (and therefore patronising them) vs. expecting an audience to be familiar with a lot of the alien terminology; it leans a little towards the latter, but this doesn’t feel like a criticism as such, and could be something only readers like myself pick up on – by which I mean, readers who aren’t very nerdy when it comes to space/AI. (Sorry, Alex!) The Shrike in particular must have particularly fun to write, particularly when it comes to its interactions with other characters, all of whom have totally unique experiences with it. Its power lies in its mystery, which is a pretty effective way of depicting a villain that’s genuinely terrifying (see: AlienJaws et al.).

The best books, for me, are ones that know what they’re doing. It’s very hard to explain this, but I respect books that weave together seemingly small and random events so that they connect and ultimately contain a huge amount of meaning – Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a great example, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or heck, even just the Harry Potter series. It’s an admirable trait in fiction and something I’d love to knowingly and successfully do in my own writing one day. Books written in this way suggest that the author did their research, took time to build a world or a universe, thought about the detail and foreshadowed significant events carefully, and it’s those books that you put down with a great sense of satisfaction. You can root it back to Greek mythology, renaissance poetry and chiastic structure or the like, but it’s surprisingly difficult – and therefore commendable – to write a book that feels genuinely well-crafted.

Its only major flaw is the fact it ends on a cliffhanger. After psyching up every character’s motivation, not seeing any of them actually reach the end their separate quests is a little frustrating, even if the ambiguous end is beautiful in its own way. Still, Alex informed me that it’s actually only half a book and the original was twice as long (with the second half turning into its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion) so I don’t feel like I can blame Simmons for the ending. Hyperion, its sequel and several short stories form what is known as the Hyperion Cantos (incidentally the name of a work the poet and pilgrim Martin Silenus is working on within the story), so I’ll be sure to check them all out at some point.

It’s not perfect, of course: despite the rich opportunity to create seven very distinct characters, some of them bleed into each other a little too much – Father Hoyt, Sol Weintraub and Het Masteen to an extent could almost be interchangeable – and while it technically passes the Bechdel test, it could do with a few more complex women in the mix – but it’s very, very good, and for that reason I’ve found a new favourite. I don’t know if The Fall of Hyperion will prove to be as clever as I’m expecting, but it’ll make a pretty good holiday read either way.

So! Five stars on Goodreads. How do I persuade a colleague to buy me the sequel?

[Coming next: Life of Pi by Yann Martel]

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The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

flood

Yippee! It wasn’t long after I finished Oryx and Crake before I got my hands on The Year of the Flood – the second instalment in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Published six years after Oryx and Crake, it seemed Atwood felt there was a little more backstory to be explored in Jimmy and Crake’s surreal world, so, as I was expecting, the story jumped back to the beginning. Instead of focusing on Jimmy again, The Year of the Flood tells the life stories of two women: Toby, a woman raised in the ‘pleeblands’ (the bottom of the pile, so to speak) and trapped as a sex worker before joining a vegan and naturalistic cult, the God’s Gardeners, and Ren, a much younger woman who joins the same cult as a child and grows up happily within it, before leaving with her emotionally distant mother and eventually turning to sex work herself. Sounds pretty dark, and parts of it were. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, and I knew that the story would eventually line up to that; not quite a continuation, but giving the pivotal scene at the end of Oryx and Crake a little more context.

Overall, it’s a closer look at the dystopian world Jimmy, Crake and Oryx were born and grew up in. As the two protagonists of the book are female, it provides an interesting insight into how women are treated in such a world, which isn’t given too much attention in Oryx and Crake, what with the plot mostly following Jimmy’s point of view. Plus, Jimmy had the privilege of growing up in a world where his parents were well-off and worked within the structure of the government; in TYotF we see what it’s like for those on the other side, how the poor living in the pleeblands cope and how they gain relief in a seedy and dystopian world. At times, the two women’s stories were quite horrifying – particularly Toby’s. I found myself getting quite upset by it, which is credit to Atwood, who paints a very real, very sympathetic picture.

Some of the characters who pop up in passing in Oryx and Crake are given their due backstory here. The best example is Amanda Payne, first introduced in Oryx and Crake as an artsy girlfriend Jimmy lived with briefly after graduating from university, here much more a significant character: Ren’s best friend who also joins the Gardeners as a young girl. We also learn much more about the ‘police force’ that popped up in Oryx and Crake: a sinister and corrupt entity. In O&C we remember them hounding Jimmy for information about his mother, resorting to rather perverse methods to gain information from him – he accepted this rather matter-of-factly, but admittedly he and Crake were integrated with them, living in the ‘Compounds’ with the government, scientisits, and general leaders of the dystopian society. As I had hoped for, The Year of the Flood goes into a little more detail about where Jimmy’s mother actually went (though, it turns out, it’s nowhere of any particular importance).

The problem with books like this is that once you spend so long identifying with particular characters it becomes difficult to connect with the situation through the eyes of different individuals. I found myself missing Jimmy and Crake almost painfully, particularly Jimmy. They do pop up in the story a fair bit as the book progresses, but we never see too much or see the world through Jimmy’s perspective again. The plot gave me a better sense of their age: the ‘Flood’ (what the Gardeners name the apocalypse) is described to take place in Year 25, coincidentally the age of Ren and Amanda, which would make Jimmy and Crake around 27 or 28 when society breaks down (I was on the right lines after all).

As the plot progressed, I lost interest in the two protagonists quite considerably. They seemed rather generic: I didn’t get a sense of much emotion out of them compared to how interesting Jimmy was in Oryx and Crake. Their portrayal also bothered me; Atwood is praised for successfully using the opportunity to flesh out female characters after their rather 2D representation in O&C, but the women here seem to have little character scope beyond their relationships with men – particularly Ren, who is shoehorned in as one of Jimmy’s old girlfriends. This felt VERY tacked on: Ren is supposedly a childhood friend of Jimmy’s and then a teenage girlfriend, but there is no mention of her in O&C (or if there is, it is very much in passing, with none of Jimmy’s teenage conquests having any particularly importance). This obvious inclusion is worsened by Jimmy supposedly suffering from his failed teenage romance throughout his life – we know this from what his other girlfriends tell Ren (including Amanda) – which makes little sense when we know what a cad Jimmy is with women in O&C (though, to be fair, Ren suspects he is simply lying to them all).

Despite being frustrated by how pathetically attached Ren was to Jimmy, it was somehow painfully accurate, too; I recognised the heartache Ren experienced a little too well, which might have been what turned me off it. As humans, do we have a willingness to avoid closure from a relationship, and is that one of the more pathetic aspects of our nature? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s why I hated it so much. We want to see literary our protagonists glossily strong and shameless, not suffering from the same damaged pride and pathetic pining we all do.

I got to the end very impatiently to reach the closing scene of Oryx and Crake, just so Jimmy could come back into the story properly (and, with any luck, we might go pack into his POV). We end on the same cliffhanger as O&C. So, Goodreads: four stars (not as good as Oryx and Crake, but very enjoyable nonetheless). How will it all conclude in MaddAddam? You’ll have to wait and see.

[Coming next: Beloved by Toni Morrison]

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Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you’re missing out. Perhaps most famous for her dystopian fertility horror story The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has long since proved she’s got a grip on writing literary masterpieces – and futuristic, terrifying, dystopian worlds while we’re at it. If you come across lists of sci-fi novel recommendations, more often than not Oryx and Crake has pride of place – in fact, that’s probably how I heard of it in the first place. And, of course, the Waterstones shop worker told me she liked it. One day I’ll buy a book that one of those shop workers hasn’t read, but I’m still waiting for that day.

I knew Oryx and Crake was going to be good (shortlisted for the Booker AND Orange Prize, not bad), but going from the blurb, I was slightly worried it would be one of thsoe odd, experimental, sci-fi works that takes a while to get your teeth into. You tell me:

‘Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and raccoons. A man, once called Jimmy, lives in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, now calls himself Snowman. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.’

Yeah, sounds pretty straightforward.

Thankfully, it was. The story was fairly clear from the start, bar the first chapter, which plunges you straight into ‘Snowman’s’ life – he’s recognisable to us, but his fellow humans seem to view him as something of a commodity, which was intriguing. The story is told through a mix of current events (so to speak) and flashbacks to Snowman’s (aka Jimmy’s) life, bringing the events to present day.

Jimmy’s the best protagonist I’ve read in a while. You despise him, love him, and, overall, pity him, all the way through his emotionally-starved childhood to the harrowing current events that unfold around him. It’s hard to tell how old he is when the book opens, but based on his life experiences I’d hazard a guess that he’s in his mid to late twenties. This is a spoilery review, but it’s a spoilery book (as are most books that open at the end).

The plot focuses on a world where gene experimentation is a common aspect of a futuristic, dystopian society, and one man – Crake – is left to run wild with his ideas. Jimmy grows up in an environment where animals are spliced together for human experimentation and, essentially, for fun. Crake (real name Glenn), his boyhood friend who matures into a genius, becomes so wrapped up in this that he eventually manufactures a new type of human – these, then, are the only ‘people’ left in the new world, who Jimmy refers to as the Crakers, or Children of Crake. The book is a Bildungsroman for Jimmy (and Crake, to a lesser extent), as we watch him grow into a world where commercialism is everything, women are prey to common and uncontrolled pornographic exploitation, and biological experimentation has been taken to the extreme. Of course, things don’t exactly improve when a plague wipes out civilisation.

You can probably guess who created the plague to (presumably) allow his self-created humans to thrive: Crake. Why he made Jimmy immune to the disease is unclear; he never properly explains it to his best friend, but his final lines to him – ‘I’m counting on you’ – seem to suggest he trusts Jimmy above everyone else to rebuild civilisation from the roots up. But why not himself? That, I hope, is something that may become clearer in the sequels. Is Crake a psychopath? It takes a certain amount of manic self-belief to believe you have the power to wipe out society and reconstruct it based on what you deem effective, and Crake shows little emotion about it (or about anything) throughout the novel. That said, the world he lives in is unpleasant. Even beyond the state interference, we are given hints as to exactly what the Earth has become. Global warming has left a huge proportion of the land underwater, and the weather seems overly freakish compared to now (there is a storm every afternoon, for example). If this is the catalyst for Crake’s Godlike plan, it’s disturbingly easy to see the logic behind it.

Considering Jimmy and Crake don’t spend that much time together after they leave high school (at least, until Jimmy goes to work for Crake), they have a remarkably captivating friendship. It’s helped, I suppose, by that uncertainty over whether or not they actually care for one another or rather are bonded by a sense of competition. This is heightened when Oryx comes into the equation; initially spotted as a child on a pornography website when the two of them were teenagers, they both develop lifelong obsessions with her until she makes an appearance in real life as Crake’s girlfriend (of a sort) and seduces Jimmy. It isn’t clear whether or not this was set up by Crake but Jimmy quickly falls in love and is desperate to prevent Crake from finding out. Of course, it’s suggested that he’s known all along (and it is part of his plan). Crake meets his own end by slitting Oryx’s throat in front of a gun-wielding Jimmy – it’s hard to believe he didn’t know what would happen as a result of that.

Oryx is not so interesting. She’s fairly non-descript in the book, and although we get a sense of her upbringing, we get no emotional depth from her; she seems virtually indifferent to what happened to her in her past. It was almost as if she didn’t need to be a fully fleshed out character but was simply there to be an object for both of the men to project their own, emotionally-stunted versions of love on to her. When a female writer writes these male-fantasy type women into novels I’m always surprised, but in this case I didn’t care too much. From what I know Atwood will focus on much more real and three-dimensional women in the sequel, so I’m looking forward to that.

Speaking of … the book is kicking off a trilogy. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, but from what I’ve heard the next book doesn’t continue this plot but instead flashes back in time and looks at the same set of events through different characters’ eyes. This suggests that the controlled, dystopian world isn’t entirely left behind, which is intriguing – there are a few loose ends to be tied up (what happened to Jimmy’s mother, for example). I can’t wait.

This gets the full five stars from me; I could hardly put it down. Bring on The Year of the Flood.

[Coming next: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin]

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